Since the early days of baseball, when it was discovered that some right handers hit left handed pitching better than right handed pitching and most left handers hit right handed pitching better, a platoon has generally been made up of two players who play the same position, one a right handed hitter and one left.
Terry Francona has always made generous use of such platoons, turning borderline AAAA players into a near All-Star combination in Ryan Raburn and David Murphy, then Lonnie Chisenhall and Brandon Guyer. This season, thanks to injuries, he has stumbled into a very different kind of platoon.
If everyone was healthy, the Indians defensive line-up is very simple. The only platoons would be Chisenhall and Guyer in right and possibly Bradley Zimmer and Austin Jackson in center. Everyone being healthy for the rest of the season seems a pipe dream, so there are now quite a few other positions being manned by multiple players and this is only likely to increase when September begins and rosters expand.
What makes these new platoons interesting is that they are almost exclusively defined by their offense and defense dynamic, rather than simple left to right. The most stark of these is Giovanny Urshela and Yandy Diaz at third base. With Carlos Santana and Jason Kipnis out, both have been able to get into games, but in the long run, the Indians will have to decide how to deal with this situation.
If one of the pair was performing at an outstanding level, the decision would be easy, but as can be seen above, their WAR is nearly identical after considering offense, defense and base running. While neither are hitting particularly well, Diaz has been significantly better and has a track record of being a powerful slugger in the minors while Urshela has two Major League seasons and nearly a decade of minor league experience that show he doesn’t have much of a bat.
On the other side, Urshela has been worth an incredible 20.5 UZR/150 and this is obviously apparent from the eye test in the form of spectacular plays as well. The center field situation is similar.
Unlike at third, in this case both players have been above replacement level for the season and there is a bit more separation overall as both have significantly more playing time than the third basemen and Zimmer has a significantly higher fWAR. While it would appear that the Indians should simply start the better player of each pair every game and hope for the best, WAR is based of what offense and defense are worth for the entire league. The Indians may not have quite the same value system as the rest of the league.
No matter how you look at the Indians line-up, they’ve been pretty good this season. They rank 7th in the Majors in offensive runs produced above average and, while they’re 23rd defensively, they sit at just -2.2 below average. Even so, it would seem that the Indians need defense more than offense in general, so the decision should be to go with Urshela and Zimmer, irrelevant of offensive production. However, an odd split that has seen the Indians score ten or more runs in 16 games (they’ve went 15-1 in those and 35-2 in games where they score at least seven) and 39 games where they’ve scored two or fewer runs (4-35).
If they knew before hand which games would be which, they could decide to go for Jackson and Diaz when they think will have trouble scoring (such as against a left hander they haven’t seen very often) and Zimmer and Urshela if they are expecting to score more. The fact is, the majority of the offense is going to come from the top of the line-up anyway; Edwin Encarnacion, Jay Bruce, Jose Ramirez and Francisco Lindor, so losing out on Diaz’s slight improvement over Urshela or Jackson’s significant improvement over Zimmer shouldn’t effect the game much.
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Then, there is original platoon. Jackson hasn’t just been better than Zimmer offensively overall this year, but has been one of the Indians top hitters against left handed pitching. When the season started, if you said that Jackson would have a higher wRC+ than Encarnacion, you would have been considered crazy, yet here we are with a month left in the season and the part time outfielder is blowing the slugger away. Because of his extreme dominance of south paws and the lack of Indians offense otherwise against lefties, Jackson needs to be in the line-up every single day against lefties.
The good news here is that he can be, even if Zimmer starts in center every game. With his only detriment against pitchers of either hand being defense, Jackson should legitimately be starting every day right now. He’s been so much more effective than Guyer at this point that he should be the right half of the Chisenhall platoon once he returns and with an outfield of Bruce and Brantley in the corners, Jackson should still be starting in center against lefties.
Against right handers, however, Zimmer’s defense provides more than enough to make up for the difference in offensive output. To make best use of a glove man, they need as much playing time as possible while a bat can still be useful off the bench. You never know when a player will hit a gap shot to right center, but you can hand pick the place to use your pinch hitter.
This is also a reason to keep Urshela in the line-up over Diaz unless a significant offensive turnaround happens. While it’s possible to go to a move defense oriented line-up after putting up some runs in the early innings, there’s a much better chance that the defender will make a difference if he’s in from the first pitch and the manager still has a chance to go to that other bat in a time of need.
Obviously, the situation is fluid. Diaz was a top 10 Indians prospect last year for a reason and is generally considered to be worlds apart from Urshela. The situation changes entirely with different players and different teams. At the moment, for the Indians, the best solution appears to be a defense first one while trying to get as much playing time for Jackson without allowing him to play center. Of course, the perfect solution would be for everyone to return from the DL instantaneously, but this is the hand the Indians were dealt and they’ll have to deal with it the best way they can.